Rebirth of Reason


Musical Innovation: Devotion or Deviance?
by Joseph C. Maurone

We've been arguing the importance of melody as the aspect of music that makes it understandable by the human mind. But at the same time, for innovation to exist in any field, there needs to be some form of deviation from the tried-and-true. The idea of "thinking outside the box" has been explored extensively, from religious rebels whose suffering is rewarded with sainthood to books such as The Deviant's Advantage: How Fringe Ideas Create Mass Markets. Ayn Rand herself created Trickster-like heroes who constantly redefine the world's standards and values.

The field of music, known for its ethereal nature, is probably the most fertile area for creative deviation. Without a common agreement of what music even represents, it is perhaps the human endeavor, along with philosophy, most resistant to boundaries and limitations. Appeals to the nature of the mind are only helpful up to a point, since the mind, another ill-defined concept, is not static, but also open to growth and change. It's been said that good science fiction is not about the future, because if it were, there would only be one book: the right one. So Platonic notions of "the music of the spheres," and dreams of "metamusic" will always be unattainable fantasies. And although music can be said to be a recreation of the tension and release manifested through the physical world, it ultimately creates an emotional response, which requires the unique experiences of the listener, creating not a universal experience but myriad possibilities of reactions.

Melody is said to be the most important aspect of music, and many have tried to define what makes a good melody. We know that the integral component of melody is the scale and intervals employed, and have identified common archetypal emotional reactions for each. (Whether they are cultural or biological is another matter.) Robert Jourdain lists eight main principles of a successful melody in Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy:

-Nearly all the notes in the melody are to be chosen from the seven-note scale upon which the melody is based. When any of the remaining five chromatic notes are used, they generally should appear in positions that are unaccented and unemphasized so as not to undermine the prevailing harmony. (Suggests the need for hierarchy.)

-Most of a melody's notes should be adjacent scale notes. Jumps should be few; and large jumps rare.

-To avoid monotony, individual notes should not be repeated too much, particularly at emphasized positions in a melody.

-Harmonic resolutions ... should occur at points of rhythmic stress in a melody.

-Similarly, rhythmic accentuations should highlight the melody's contour. Changes in melodic direction should generally fall at rhythmically important junctures.

-A melody should have only one instance of its highest tone, and preferably also of its lowest tone. The highest tone should never be a tone that naturally tends toward a higher one (such as the seventh note of a melody's scale.)

-Jumps should always land on one of the seven scale tones, not on one of the five chromatic tones. The ear always hears a jump as emphasized (that is, the brain is more attentive to jumps, since they define the boundaries of submelodies), so jumping to a chromatic tone violates the rule about never emphasizing these tones.

-Conversely, a melody should never leap from a chromatic tone. The dissonance of a chromatic tone creates tension in need of release. Yet jumps increase tension, and so contradict this need.

This would seem like a recipe for "the perfect melody," but it is not so. Jourdain recognizes that many memorable melodies do employ these rules, and that many awkward, ugly melodies break them. (The reader is invited to test this on their own favorites.) But he points out that "while rules can point out bad melodies, they can't predict good ones. Many a drab melody observes every rule. Others break an important rule and somehow gain by it.

Jourdain uses the highly recognizable "Pink Panther" theme as an example. The theme is meant to invoke the stalking motions of a predator (in this case, a comical one) and contains many starts and stops presented by clustered rhythms and a disjointed sliding scale. The piece observes most of the rules but deviates by emphasizing non-scale chromatic tones.

"The Pink Panther" represents the need for deviation in music to fulfill a need. There are surely better melodies in the world that are more beautiful or inspiring, but they could not have conveyed what this particular piece does. If one believes that emotions are not moral or immoral in themselves, then we need a musical vocabulary that expresses a wide range of emotions. One could probably find reasons to break the rules many times. Large, frequent jumps may not be suitable for wedding music, or requiems, but could make a perfect soundtrack for a gymnastic sense of life. (Immediately I think of the leaps and bounds of West Side Story.) A person's sense of life and philosophy is probably more important in determining a succesful melody than adherence to the "rules," anyway. Considering that many of the rules of Western music come from a religious mentality, we shouldn't be surprised that many notions of "ideal music" are a picture of a non-corporeal afterlife that shuns earthy rhythms. (And just compare the solemn singing of the Protestant hymns to the "joyful noise" of the African-American churches ... a prime example of deviance in action based on a sense of life! And not unlike the ground-hugging, this-life affirming temple designed by Howard Roark, a deviation from the sky-reaching churches of tradition.) A one-size-fits-all approach does not do justice to the possibilities of the human imagination.

Without falling into the post-modern trap of relativism and denying that some composers are better than others, innovation requires deviation and diversity. The rules, once known, are begging to be broken. If one wants to see innovation in music, one needs to engage in the dialectic of devotion and deviation.
Sanctions: 14Sanctions: 14Sanctions: 14 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (53 messages)